Friday, October 9, 2015

Musings on a Saturday morning

Musings on a Saturday morning:
Many months ago I read an essay, a pretty lengthy one at that, which described rather emotionally the last day of ten different individuals before 9/11. How they got up in the morning, carried their daily chores, whom they spoke to and in some cases what they spoke about, the reminiscences of friends, relatives and family members who were perhaps the last ones they interacted with - so on and so forth. The tenor of that article, it seemed to me was to find some kind of meaning or premonition or cause during that penultimate day that could justify their brutal and calamitous death that followed. While it was a very well written piece of essay, but as I was reading it, I remember being stuck by a sudden strange uneasiness over the thought process behind it. It stuck me with full force that the author was attempting to rationalize and find some meaning or cause that could possibly explain what happened on 9/11. It is always a mystery to me that the Human mind simply cannot accept a happening as unpredidated, or without cause. Or in other words, our assumption is that any event negating or modifying our “known” world has to in some way be a continuation of what we already know. If the reason is not apparent just then, we try our best to prove it in hindsight. Whatever may be the case, we believe there must something in the past which must have led up to this event. How naïve or ignorant can we get? Even a casual study of Human history – political, scientific, social, and artistic - will yield some many events that landed upon us so suddenly “out of the blue” – so to speak, that later historians and social documentarians had to strive hard to find bits and pieces of evidence to tie them into a coherent stream of cause and effect.
Uncertainty and unpredictability is woven into the very fabric of our lives. And no matter how much we know (progress is all about knowing) there is never a guarantee that the next moment will not negate all that we know. There is an old Latin expression called “The black swan” – which meant precisely this predicament. For a long time, all swans that were spotted, observed, documented and studied were only white in color. Having not seen a Black swan, it was considered an impossibility that a Black swan even exists, until a Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh spotted one in Western Australia in the seventeenth century. And since then, sudden, improbable and unpredicted events began to be termed as Black swans. 9/11 was a typical example of Black swan. None believed that it could happen until it happened, and since then there have been a multiple theories and explanations on why it happened. This is very typical of Human thought- the act of rationalizing, after an event has occurred.
The principle that every event should have a cause is something that is deeply engrained in Human brain. Not surprising considering everything that we have ever been taught follows a pattern of “cause and effect”. And to be fair, nothing in our day to day living seem to be negating that assumption. For most part it is true at a one level, and based on its success at that stage we end up planning our lives with an aim to almost absolute uncertainty (even Insurance premiums in many cases is only considered a form of investment and not an act of insuring against unpredictability), and if one fine morning we get up to find things topsy turvy, we are perplexed and jolted out of comfort zones.
The other day, I was reading Shankara’s commentary of Bhagavad gita. Interestingly his interpretative commentary begins only from Verse 11 of Chapter 2, which is
Śrī-bhagavān uvāca:
aśocyān anvaśocas tvaḿ
prajñā-vādāḿś ca bhāṣase
gatāsūn agatāsūḿś ca
nānuśocanti paṇḍitāḥ
Roughly translated in the light of Shankara’s commentary - it reads thus:
“Thinking about things that cannot be thought about, you seem to expounding very knowledgeably with your limited assessment of reality. The wise man does not care about cause and effect, he sees them as limitations of Human understanding, and does what he needs to do at the moment and moves on”
Now, critics may argue on how there cannot be causation. After all the physical world as we know it is built on it. I aim a missile, and I know exactly where it should land. I flip a switch, and light burns; I water a plant, it grows. So where is the negation in all this? As I said in a earlier paragraph : cause and effect is operative only in a relative field of observation. It would be stupid not to acknowledge its infallibility in that sphere; but the problem arises when we extrapolate it to regions beyond our grasp. Our limited sense of “progress” on this tiny speck of a planet on the outermost reaches of a galaxy should not make us think that we are in control. Black swans are a way of humbling us.
The state of “Not Knowing” and the ability to accept it as a fact in life is the only liberating experience. Not that we shouldn’t strive to increase our understanding or try to know more. After all that is only truly human prerogative that we have, all the rest like eating, sleeping, sex, reproduction - we share with our fellow animal kingdom. What is needed though is a deep affirmation that our thought structure put together over millennia is but a tip of an iceberg, and there are many things that can surprise us anytime. Therefore, let us not act as though we shouldn’t be surprised.
The bibliophile and great writer Umberto eco (most of you will know “Name of the rose”) has a huge collection of books, around 30,000 volumes on diverse subjects at his home in Italy. One of the first questions any visitor asks him is this: “Have you really read these many books?” to which Eco’s invariable answer is “No, they are reminders on how much more there is to know”.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala

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